COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Monday, when writing about stripping off the weight that keeps us from running the race God sets before us, I likened it to the actions of a triathlete. Whenever I attend one of my son’s triathlons, I’m part of an enormous crowd witnessing the event. Most are like me—trying to spot our loved ones’ swim cap bobbing in the water or their number as they speed past us on the course. Although we cheer, shake cowbells, carry posters, and yell encouraging words to all the racers, we are merely onlookers and few of us have any real idea of the challenges faced by each competitor. When reading of being surrounded by a crowd of witnesses during the race of faith in Hebrews 21:1, it first seems that these witnesses are like the crowd at a triathlon cheering on the athletes.

A look back at Hebrews 11, however, tells us those witnesses are not mere observers; they were participants in the same race! Having already crossed the finish line, they include such stellar names as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and even Rahab. Without specifically naming them, the author also refers to the trials of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Stephen, James, Jeremiah, and Elijah. Not limited to ancient Biblical witnesses, we can be inspired by the witness of people like William Tyndale, Eric Liddell, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and Desmond Tutu. All of them encountered things like overwhelming challenges, torture, sickness, combat, beatings, oppression, poverty, hostility, and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. When they stumbled, they got back up and kept going. Having persevered through doubt, distress, and anguish, their lives affirm God’s absolute faithfulness to them. Their witness of faithful service to God can inspire us to shed anything weighing us down and to faithfully continue running the course God has given us.

There are, however, another set of witnesses to our journey of faith. In his first triathlon, my son was a novice who naively thought that combining three sports in one race couldn’t be that difficult. He made mistakes in his choice of clothing, equipment, nutrition, and training. Although my son finished that first race (with soggy bike shorts and blistered feet), it was just a sprint triathlon. He knew he needed the wisdom and support of other triathletes if he ever hoped to complete an international/Olympic triathlon. Joining a tri club, he attended clinics, meetings, and group workouts where he learned about each discipline within a triathlon. He gained guidance, coaching, training opportunities, encouragement, and friends with whom to train.

If we want to finish well in our faith journey, rather than joining a tri club, we need to join with other Christians. Just as his fellow triathletes witnessed to my son about their experiences, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who witness to us. Just as his teammates share their experiences, help him up when he falls, and encourage him when he struggles to keep going, our church family is there to encourage, guide, correct, and help us. Even though they haven’t completed their journey, they are well on their way to crossing the finish line. Like my son’s tri teammates, they’re more than mere onlookers; as living testifiers to a life of faith, they bear witness to us that running the race set before us is both doable and worthwhile.

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:34-34 (NLT)]

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OUR VOWS

For your Creator will be your husband; the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth. [Isaiah 54:5 (NLT)]

But you have been unfaithful to me, you people of Israel! You have been like a faithless wife who leaves her husband. I, the Lord, have spoken. [Jeremiah 3:20 (NLT)]


Throughout the Bible, marriage is often used as a metaphor for man’s relationship with God. His covenant with Israel is seen as a form of marriage, their unfaithfulness as adultery, and their alienation from God as divorce. The book of Hosea is a story of a prophet with an unfaithful wife that parallels God’s relationship with his unfaithful people. Some scholars say the entire Song of Songs is an allegory of God’s love for Israel or the church. In the New Testament, John the Baptist describes the Messiah as a bridegroom and Jesus refers to himself as the groom in wedding parables. Marriage was ordained by God and the marital bond illustrates God’s relationship with His people.

55 years ago, I promised to love, comfort, and honor my husband and to forsake all others, keeping myself only for him as long as I lived. I took him for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and to love and cherish until we were parted by death. In light of the many Biblical references to our spiritual marriage, I started to evaluate how I’ve done keeping those same vows with God.

Although I’ve done a pretty good job of doing all that I promised to my husband, I’ve not done as well with God. In times of health, wealth and contentment, I often forgot who made those good times possible. Moreover, I often was doubtful, distant, or angry with God in the times of sickness, scarcity, and sorrow. Since I frequently followed my peers, took the easy rather than right route, and listened to the enemy when I should have listened to Him, I’m not sure I even forsook all others for the Lord. Like a mistress or prostitute, I seemed to love Him for his gifts and often came to Him only because I wanted something more. While I can’t comfort our Almighty God, I’ve probably caused Him a fair amount of discomfort and grief. Fortunately, there was nothing about obedience in my wedding vows because obedience certainly hasn’t been my strong suit with the Lord. While I haven’t failed completely as a spiritual wife, I certainly haven’t kept our covenant relationship as well as I should have done.

On God’s part, like the perfect husband, He has been faithful and loved me in all circumstances. In spite of seeing me at my worst and knowing my every fault, God continued to love me. When I stopped believing in Him, He never stopped believing in me and, when I rejected him, He never rejected me. No matter how unfaithful I have been, God has remained faithful to me. He’s been loving and true to me at my sickest, poorest, and most contemptible. He gave me unconditional love when my love for Him seemed to depend on circumstances. Just as God told Hosea to redeem and love his adulterous wife, God has redeemed and loved me! The gift of His only Son to save my sorry soul is evidence of that.

At landmark anniversaries, people often remake their wedding vows. Our vows to God need to be retaken not just every ten years but every day. Merciful God, thank you for your unconditional and lavish love. Forgive us for being less than you deserve and thank you for giving us more than we could ever desire. In all circumstances, may we love, honor, cherish, and obey you, now and forever.

Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City” or “The Desolate Land.” Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight” and “The Bride of God,” for the Lord delights in you and will claim you as his bride. Your children will commit themselves to you, O Jerusalem, just as a young man commits himself to his bride. Then God will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. [Isaiah 62:4-5 (NLT)]

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REJECTION

The Lord told Samuel, “Listen to everything the people are saying to you. They haven’t rejected you; they’ve rejected me. They’re doing just what they’ve done since I took them out of Egypt—leaving me and serving other gods. Listen to them now, but be sure to warn them and tell them about the rights of a king.” [1 Samuel 8:7-9 (GW)]
hibiscus

Following Samson, the high priest Eli may have acted as a sort of judge. His sons, however, were scoundrel priests who treated God’s offering with contempt and slept with the women serving in the Tabernacle. When God’s judgment came down upon Eli and his sons, Samuel became the high priest and judge. While Samuel clearly was called by God to his role, his sons Joel and Abijah were not. Nevertheless, when Samuel grew old, he appointed his boys as judges. Like Eli’s sons, they were greedy rogues who took advantage of their position by accepting bribes and corrupting justice. Fed up with their wickedness, Israel’s elders met with Samuel. Wanting to be like the nations surrounding them and hoping to bring the tribes into a cohesive union, they demanded a king.

Rather than depend on God in time of crisis, Israel wanted to depend on human wisdom, power, and strength. Samuel cautioned them about all that came with a king: conscription of their sons and requisitioning of their crops along with demands for their daughters’ labor and a ten percent tax. Although amply warned by Samuel that they would beg for relief from the king they wanted, the people refused to listen. Allowing Israel to make choices (and learn from their consequences), God had Samuel appoint Saul as their king. Less than 120 years later, Samuel’s warning was fulfilled when they implored King Rehoboam for relief from excessive work and taxes; shortly thereafter, the kingdom divided.

Saul was exactly what the people wanted; he came from a wealthy and influential family, was tall and handsome, and even courageous. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a good leader or knowledgeable in spiritual matters. He had an inferiority complex and issues with impulse control, godly obedience, jealousy, and selfishness.

If I’d been in God’s position at this point in Israel’s history, I might have responded to them with an ultimatum of “it’s my way or the highway!” When they encountered difficulties with their plan, my cold response might have been, “You reap what you sow,” or “You wanted him, now you’re stuck with him!” I may have turned away from those who’d turned from me and stopped listening to those who’d stopped listening to what I had to say.

Fortunately for Israel (and us), I’m not God and that’s not how God responded. He never gave up on his people after their disobedience and rebellion in Eden, during the Exodus, or during the time of the judges and He didn’t this time either. After all, a promise is a promise and God promised the Israelites that He never would leave or forsake them! Samuel continued to serve the Israelites as their prophet, priest, and judge and David, a much better man than Saul, eventually became king. In spite of Israel’s continued failure to follow the Lord during the time of the kings, He gave them prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah who continued to speak God’s word to his people. He gave them John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Messiah and then He offered His only son, Jesus, as payment for our sins.

Mercifully, God doesn’t hold a grudge or respond in a snit when we ignore or disobey him. He didn’t abandon the Israelites and he won’t abandon us. When we reject Him, He doesn’t reject us; when we ignore Him, He doesn’t ignore us. When we take the wrong path, He continues to give us opportunities to turn back or offers new and better paths along the way.

Thank you, God, for never giving up on your rebellious children.

The Lord is compassionate, merciful, patient, and always ready to forgive. He will not always accuse us of wrong or be angry with us forever. He has not treated us as we deserve for our sins or paid us back for our wrongs. As high as the heavens are above the earth—that is how vast his mercy is toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west—that is how far he has removed our rebellious acts from himself. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. [Psalm 103:8-13 (GW)]

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DEBORAH 

One day she sent for Barak son of Abinoam, who lived in Kedesh in the land of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: Call out 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor. And I will call out Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, along with his chariots and warriors, to the Kishon River. There I will give you victory over him.” [Judges 4:6-7 (NLT)]

rainbowSince the judges usually were military leaders, it’s not surprising that only one of the twelve, was female: Deborah. Normally, the culture of the day wouldn’t support a woman in this role. Judges were called to save Israel from their enemies and to restore peace and prosperity. They did it by driving out or annihilating Israel’s oppressors—not considered women’s work in 1150 BC. Nevertheless, God designated the prophet Deborah as Israel’s judge. At the risk of sounding sexist, it could be that God appointed a woman as the judge because there were no qualified men at the time!

Deborah served during the time Canaanite King Jabin oppressed Israel. After summoning Barak, she revealed God’s plan—promising victory, God commanded him to gather an army of 10,000 men and go to war. Even though Barak was assured of success, the warrior’s reluctance is understandable. Israel was nearly weaponless at the time. Either they lacked the technology to make weapons or had been required to turn in their weapons to their Philistine and Canaanite oppressors. The Canaanites, however, had 900 chariots (the superweapons of their time) at their disposal! The odds were against Israel!

Barak accepted God’s call on one condition—that Deborah join him! Deborah was a wife, prophet, and judge but she wasn’t a warrior; nevertheless, Barak wanted this woman at his side. Perhaps he trusted Deborah’s relationship with God more than he trusted his! After agreeing to go to battle, Deborah warned Barak that, if she did go, he would not be the battle’s hero—that honor would belong to a woman.

As Deborah prophesized, Barak’s troops were victorious. They killed every Canaanite warrior save one—the army’s commander, Sisera. And, as Deborah predicted, the honor for the battle’s victory went to a woman—but not to Deborah. While both Deborah and Barak are mentioned in the victory song, the honor went to Jael. The wife of Heber the Kenite, Jael sized up the situation when the fleeing Sisera arrived in her campsite. After welcoming him into her tent, she fed him and covered him with a blanket. Then, in what can only be called a serious breach of hospitality, Jael hammered a tent peg through Sisera’s skull after the exhausted man fell asleep!

Deborah’s story closes with a beautiful song of victory attributed to her. Believed to be some of the oldest poetry in the Bible, it is a beautiful narrative of the battle. When God caused a storm, the heavy rain caused the river to rise and the Canaanites’ chariots became stuck in the mud. The panicked troops were sitting ducks when Israel’s army descended upon them. The song pays tribute to all of the people and tribes who fought (and berates those who didn’t). As Jael’s part is recounted, she is called the “most blessed among women” and a prayer is offered that Jael “be blessed above all women who live in tents.” Deborah’s song, however, really wasn’t about giving Jael the honor of victory. That honor was given to God. Deborah gave credit where credit was due as she celebrated God’s righteous act in bringing the power of the heavens against their enemies!

When Barak insisted that Deborah come to battle with him, he seemed to forget that she was not the one guaranteeing victory; that guarantee came from God. The question before Barak wasn’t one of Israel’s success or defeat in battle. The question of victory was answered the moment God promised it. The question before Barak was simply whether or not He would believe God enough to claim that victory! He almost didn’t! May we remember to claim the victories that God promises to us!

So on that day Israel saw God defeat Jabin, the Canaanite king. And from that time on Israel became stronger and stronger against King Jabin until they finally destroyed him. [Judges 4:23-24 (NLT)]

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GOOD INTENTIONS

This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:6-7 (NLT)]

rocky mountain national parkBritish mystery author Ruth Rendell often received letters from would-be authors who wanted to know how to get started. Her response was simple: “I tell them to stop writing to me and get on with it.” Author Jodi Picoult said when she can’t write a good page, she simply revises a bad one while pointing out, “You can’t edit a blank page.” If we want a page filled with words, we’ve got to sit down and write them.

Even when working for God, we need more than good intentions or even prayer. Ten years ago, I was part of a Christian women’s ministry that hosted a web site for twelve writers all of whom believed they’d been called by God to expand His kingdom through their writing. We were a diverse multi-generational group and the website offered links to our individual blogs. We regularly shared our prayer concerns with one another and rarely a week went by without a prayer request for divine inspiration for someone’s writing. Sadly, the ministry disbanded within two years because only a few of the writers ever wrote anything. Apparently, good intentions and even prayer were no substitute for actually sitting down and doing the work!

By simply leaving things up to God and giving Him the entire responsibility for our work, we yield to the temptation not to take any initiative. While God is the one who enables us and deserves the glory, we are His hands and feet here on earth and the ones who are called to do His work! Remember, the Israelites had to take the initiative by stepping into the Jordan River before God stopped its flow and they were the ones who marched around Jericho for seven days before God made its walls come tumbling down! I believe in the power of prayer but prayer alone didn’t get the Israelites across the river or defeat Jericho; the people had to do the walking and the wielding of the swords. In the same way, prayer alone doesn’t provide us with the words for a devotion, sobriety, a job, health, good grades, a thriving business, a successful marriage, a college degree, or a speaking ministry. God gives us the power, guidance, inspiration, and even victory, but we still have to do the work!

When we’re called by God, He will provide us with the talent, tools, situation, time, assistance, and spiritual gifts necessary for that task. The one thing He won’t provide is the finished product. He expects us to do the labor and, as powerful as prayer is, it is no substitute for work. When Jesus spoke of moving mountains and promised us, “You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it,” He wasn’t offering us a magic wand to capriciously move mountains into the sea. If God really wants that mountain moved, however, He might just provide the shovel and tell us to start digging!

In Eden, God gave man the gift of work and a sense of purpose. After the fall, however, thistles and thorns appeared and man’s work became difficult. Work was still good; it just wasn’t easy. When faced with a garden full of weeds, we can pray those weeds will disappear and wait for divine intervention or, while praying, we can put on our work gloves and start pulling them out!

I consider it an error to trust and hope in any means or efforts in themselves alone; nor do I consider it a safe path to trust the whole matter to God our Lord without desiring to help myself by what he has given me; so that it seems to me in our Lord that I ought to make use of both parts, desiring in all things his greater praise and glory, and nothing else. [St. Ignatius]

Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. [Galatians 6:4-5 (NLT)]

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TAKE THE RISK

Be strong and courageous! … Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you. [Deuteronomy 31:6a,8 (NLT)]

Let all who fear the Lord repeat: “His faithful love endures forever.” … The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me? [Psalm 118:4,6 (NLT)]

great egret
Judge Guido Calabresi regularly asks his Yale law students to imagine receiving an offer of an amazing invention that could improve people’s lives in every imaginable way. In exchange for this invention, however, the lives of at least 1,000 randomly selected young people would be taken every year. When asked if they’d accept the deal, his students inevitably conclude they wouldn’t. Calabresi then asks them the difference between that offer and the automobile. The very thing that allows us to travel, see loved ones, easily move products across the country, and do things that couldn’t be done otherwise, kills even more than that! Over 2,600 teens (16-20) accounted for auto accident fatalities in 2019 and, with over 46,000 car fatalities last year, more than 150 people of every age die each day because of a car. Be that as it may, we’re not about to give up driving!

Calebresi uses his example to illustrate how selective we are in our fears. We underestimate and accept chronic risks like riding in a car while overestimating prominent ones like a terrorist attack or plane crash. In actuality, rather than dying from either of those things, we’re more likely to die by choking on food or slipping in the shower or tub but, preferring bathing, eating, and even driving to the alternatives, we decide they’re worth the risk. On the other hand, after assessing the perils involved in things like free solo climbing, running with the bulls, or base jumping, most of us probably decide they’re not worth the risk.

In contrast, any risk we take in obedience to God always is worth it. Regardless of the danger, we must obediently accept the risks in the challenges and tasks He gives us. Think of what Abraham risked by packing up his family and leaving Haran for an unknown destination. Think of the risks taken by the midwives Shiphrah and Puah when they defied Pharaoh by letting boy babies live or the risk Moses took when he returned to Egypt and confronted Pharaoh. It was a huge risk when Gideon and his 300 men took on an army 400 times their size and when David faced Goliath with just a sling and stones. In spite of the risk, Esther approached the king, Daniel defied the law by praying, and the bleeding woman touched Jesus’ robe. Joseph of Arimathea took a risk when he asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and Peter and John risked imprisonment and worse when they defied the Council by continuing to share the gospel. When we search Scripture, we don’t find people who assessed the risks and played it safe. We find God’s version of bungee jumpers and wing-suit flyers—faith-filled and obedient risk takers.

Every God-sent risk comes with a God-sent promise. He will remain faithful to us and be present in the risk. He will protect and empower us and we’ll never need more than what He supplies. As followers of Jesus, we don’t walk by sight. In spite of the risks, we walk by faith because faith means we’re willing to risk anything for God!

Trust is faith that has become absolute, approved, and accomplished. When all is said and done, there is a sort of risk in faith and its exercise. But trust is firm belief; it is faith in full bloom. Trust is a conscious act, a fact of which we are aware. [E.M. Bounds]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:20 (NLT)]

…For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

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